'Us' Is a Complex Metaphor for Black Mental Health
Jordan Peele's horror noire hit reflects what's beneath the surface of the black experience.
Credit: Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures
Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore return to theaters after the mega success of his Oscar-winning film Get Out, deals with the theme of multiple selves. As such, it could be viewed as a metaphor for mental health, especially within the black community.
The plot focuses on Adelaide Wilson, who as a child had a chance encounter with an evil doppelgänger while visiting a beachside amusement park. Years later, as an adult, she, her husband, and their two children return to her childhood home to vacation for the summer. Madness ensues after four malevolent beings who call themselves the “tethered” and look identical to the Wilson family invade their home. The film has a psychological twist that literally ends with (spoiler alert, and many more to follow!) a woman descending underground Alice in Wonderland-style while following several rabbits in the pursuit of a mad queen.
Get Out was notably a direct commentary on racism and anti-blackness, which catered to a black audience while entertaining the white gaze. Us, on the other hand, has a more universal message that deals with the duality of human nature. Each character in the film, no matter their race, has a tethered counterpart. At the end, it’s explained that these duplicates are all clones created in a failed government experiment, who were abandoned in underground tunnels across the country.
However, metaphorically speaking, the duplicates can be seen as a physical representation of their fears, anxieties, and more base instincts. Dealing with these manifestations of inner-demons are experiences that anyone can relate to regardless of race. However, it would be shortsighted to ignore the fact that the main characters are an African American family or assume that all mental health challenges are the same across racial lines.
The Wilson family represents a type of black person that we don’t typically see in film or television. For starters, they’re wealthy. The film kicks off with them traveling to their summer home for a vacation. The parents, played by Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong'o, are both well-educated, with Duke’s character proudly sporting a now iconic Howard University sweatshirt for most of the movie. All these are indicators of an upper-middle-class status, yet their blackness doesn’t allow the Wilsons to circumvent the trauma that comes from social oppression, which takes shape in the form of their tethered replicas.
A motif throughout the film is the idea of class warfare between an oppressed group and a privileged group, which can also be interpreted as a racial critique. The film references Hand Across America, an activist campaign from 1986 during which approximately 6.5 million people joined hands from coast to coast in an effort to raise money for the homeless. When it comes to homelessness, black people are disproportionately overrepresented.
According to the National Alliance to End Homeless, black Americans make up 40 percent of the homeless population even though they’re only 13 percent of the general population. Untreated mental illness leaves many susceptible to housing insecurity, particularly people of color. In the context of mental health, the Hands Across America component of the film is especially significant given that people living in poverty are more likely to struggle with mental illness.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Mental Health has stated that poverty affects health status. Data from the department collected from 2013-2014 found adult African Americans were 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Based on stats from the CDC, their studies found that black people living below the poverty line, as opposed to those over twice the poverty line, were three times more likely to report psychological distress.
Mental Health in America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to mental health wellness, reports that over 16 percent of black Americans were diagnosed with a mental illness in 2014. That’s roughly 6.8 million people, which corresponds with the number of participants in the Hands Across America campaign that the film uses as a unifying force between the tethered.
Along with this, multiplicity is rooted in POC communities as a means of survival. Minorities must “code switch” or perform traits of the dominant culture in order assimilate and avoid discrimination. This fracturing of self has real consequences and has the potential to play out in a variety of ways. In February, Thomas A. Vance, a postdoctoral clinical fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, reported that the black community has increased rates of mental health concerns, highlighting both anxiety and depression. “Historically, the Black community was and continues to be disadvantaged in mental health through subjection to trauma through enslavement, oppression, colonialism, racism, and segregation,” Vance writes.
To complicate things further, talking about mental health has been stigmatized within the black community, which makes getting help even more challenging to an at-risk population. The tension between the black community and mental health is exacerbated by a history of abuse and negligence from the medical community. However, in the age of memes that have us saying “it me” and self-care hashtags, talking about mental health has become less stigmatized. Even within the black community more public figures have taken a stand and addressed the issue.
In 2016, Kid Cudi opened up about his mental health challenges and admitted that he had checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. That same year, Kanye West was hospitalized for a temporary psychosis. In 2018, Taraji P. Henson founded The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in honor of her father, and in an open letter stated the mission of the organization is to eradicate the stigma around mental health.
While the culture of silence on mental health is changing, this issue comes up in Us given that none of the tethered are able to speak with the exception of Adelaide’s clone, Red. Despite Red’s ability to communicate, her voice is distorted and hoarse as if talking causes her pain. It’s one of the many subtleties of the film that nod to barriers towards addressing mental health issues due to social pressures.
Us is more than a horror film about gory deaths by an evil twin. It sheds light on an important issue that overwhelming impacts marginalized communities. The real terror isn’t what we see on screen but lies beneath the surface of each of us.
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